Shortly after turning 40, I visited my brother Gary at his home in Tucson, Arizona. A retired homicide detective turned personal trainer, Gary has served as a sort of “life coach” for me, giving me nuggets of advice at critical points in my life. During one of our hikes in the mountains surrounding Tucson, I asked Gary what he thought I needed to improve about myself. He said I should work on my spirituality.
After having focused for years on law school and then representing Wall Street clients (the infamous one percent), I knew he was right. Gary’s comment started me on a journey to find ways to connect to the higher power (what some might call God) and my inner wisdom. I think of these things collectively as “the Source.”
This is the first of a three-part series about practices that have helped me “Connect to Source”, starting with inactive (meditation), to more active (journaling), to a melding of the mind and body (Iyengar yoga). Cultivating these practices has been transformative: it has given me a much greater degree of calmness of mind, self-understanding, clarity on life’s purpose and direction, compassion, and better psychological and physical health. And we all need those things to make it in today’s stressful world!
The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler says that: “In our spiritual journey, it’s important for each of us to decide whether a particular practice is appropriate for us. Sometimes a practice will not appeal to us initially, and before it can be effective, we need to understand it better.” I hope this series will help those who are looking to connect to Source find and better understand a practice or two that may work for them.
It may seem like a trendy, “new age” thing, but the practice of meditation is ancient. I think people are turning to meditation in droves these days because of the overload of information and thoughts bombarding us from all of today’s media and technology, which invoke stress or the “fight or flight” response. We all need a few moments each day to turn off the laptop, iPhone and Blackberry and have some “quiet time” to destress and reconnect to our true selves.
And that is what meditation provides. During meditation, your body shifts into a state of restful awareness, which is a counterbalance to the “fight or flight” response. You experience a decreased heart rate, reduced stress hormones, quiet breathing and strengthened immunity. When you regularly activate restful awareness through meditation, you experience these and other physical and psychological benefits.
Ultimately, as explained in The Art of Happiness At Work, your meditation practice will benefit not only you but all of the people in your life:
“Genuine progress occurs when the individual not only sees some results in achieving higher levels of meditative states but also when their meditation has at least some influence on how they interact with others, some impact from that meditation in their daily life—more patience, less irritation, more compassion. That’s productive meditation. Something that can bring benefit to others in some way.”
Primordial Sounds And Other Mantras
My meditation practice began at a “Perfect Health” week at the Chopra Center near San Diego, which was a wonderful and memorable experience. The Chopra Center gives instruction in primordial sound meditation, a technique rooted in the Vedic tradition of India. A primordial sound is a type of mantra consisting of three sounds or vibrations, the first being “Om”, the third being “Namah”, and the second being one of 100 primordial sounds based on the time and place of your birth. A primordial sound mantra might be, for example, Om Bijah Namah.
These words have no particular meaning and are used as a tool to interrupt the flow of meaningful thoughts. Silently repeating your mantra in meditation helps you slip into the space between your thoughts, sometimes referred to as “the gap”, and expand to quieter, more abstract levels of the mind. If you don’t have a primordial sound mantra, you could just as easily use Om Mani Padme Hum (a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion).
What If I Can’t Get My Mind To Be Quiet?
A common misperception about meditation is that you should be in “the gap” the entire time. But meditation isn’t about trying to force your mind to be quiet. It’s an effortless, non-judgmental process to rediscover the quietness that’s already there, behind our internal dialogue that keeps our mind in a state of turbulence.
Many thoughts arise during meditation, and your mind drifts and wanders. Just observe this happening and return to your mantra. The instructors at the Chopra Center assured us that even Deepak’s mind wonders during meditation, from what he’s going to say on his next appearance with Oprah to the topic of his next book. Then he gently returns to his mantra. For me, the few moments of silent spaces between my thoughts during meditation are precious glimpses of inner quietness and expanded awareness. I think of them as the time when I get quiet and let God speak to me, which is a more pure form of “prayer” than telling God what I want.
No Rules, Just Guidelines
There are no “rules” to meditating, but here are some guidelines to help you get started:
- It’s generally better to meditation sitting up, since lying down is associated with sleep.
- It’s best to close your eyes, since keeping our eyes open draws our attention outward.
- The best times to meditate are first thing in the morning, before breakfast, and late afternoon or early evening. At the Chopra Center, these two times were memorably described to us as “RPM” (rise, pee, meditate), and “RAD” (right after dinner).
- Try to meditate for 30 minutes. You may need to start with 10 or 15 minutes, and work your way up to 30. Meditate for whatever time you have.
You can think about it, talk about it, and read about it, but unless you do it, you won’t experience the benefits of meditation. So whether it’s RPM or RAD, get started (or recommit to) your meditation practice today.